Entering Ely Place through the imposing iron gateway with its beadle’s lodge, with its chimney perched above a window (and not through the secret door featured in the last post), at once tells you that this is a private road. It is a cul-de-sac that is still administered by appointed commissioners of the Crown.
The houses are of the Georgian period (18th century) and feature Robert Adam style doorways.
UNTIL AS RECENTLY as 1948 the beadle would nightly call the hour between 10 pm and 5 am with the one time familiar ‘past ten o’clock, all’s well’. Another ancient curiosity of Ely Place was that criminals could claim sanctuary from the police, but that is all history and those who commit crimes today are just as likely to be arrested in Ely Place as anywhere else.
The entrance to Ely Place
Strange as it may seem, this small plot of land, until quite recently, was not part of London at all but Cambridgeshire. The history begins in 1251 when a church was built on the site of the present church of St Etheldreda, on the west side of Ely Place. Some years later the property was purchased by John Kirkby just prior to him being consecrated Bishop of Ely in 1286. When he died in 1290 he left the building and surrounding grounds to the diocese of Ely (in Cambridgeshire). In those days it was the duty of bishops to sit regularly in Parliament and this meant that it was necessary to have accommodation nearby. The magnitude of their London houses usually depended on the personal wealth of the bishop and we must assume that the Bishops of Ely were fairly well endowed. William de Luda succeeded John Kirkby and it was he who built the present church. Later, in 1336, a vineyard and orchard covering seven acres were added. Towards the end of the 14th century, Bishop Arundell rebuilt part of the palace adding a gatehouse and a high wall to enclose the grounds. ‘In this house, for the large and commodious rooms thereof, divers great and solemn feasts have been kept, especially by the serjeants-at-the-law’. All that now remains of the Bishops’ Palace is the medieval chapel of St Etheldreda.
St Ethelreda’s Church
The church of St Etheldreda displays some of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the whole of Western Europe. With the exception of Westminster Abbey, it is London’s only surviving building from the period of Edward I. The west window, when compared with the size of the building, is enormous; it was completed in 1964 and commemorates the English martyrs of the Tudor period. Scenes from the Old Testament are depicted in the windows on the south side and scenes from the New Testament in those on the north side. Also notable are the carved gorbels between these windows. A number of large statues are of local men and women who were martyred for their faith. The original doorway that separated the Chapel from the Bishops’ Palace is on the south-west side.
St Etheldreda’s suffered a great deal of damage and decay over the years but thankfully escaped the ravages of the Great Fire with minutes to spare. St Andrew’s, only yards away, was completely destroyed but a change of wind spelt reprieve for the Bishops’ old chapel.
During the Civil War of 1642, the buildings of Ely Place were used as a prison. It was finally sold to the Crown in 1772 when the London residence of the Bishops of Ely was transferred to the newly built Ely House at 37 Dover Street; this remained their official London residence until 1909.
Between numbers nine and ten, the narrow Ely Court leads to Ye Old Mitre Tavern. Notice the iron bar down the centre of the opening – it was placed there to prevent horse riders from entering the narrow passage.
To the multitudes, Ely Court is a quaint and narrow passageway, linking Hatton Garden with Ely Place has one main attraction – the enchanting Old Mitre Tavern. The first tavern on this site was built in 1546 by Bishop Goodrich, Bishop of Ely, for the enjoyment of his Palace servants. The present building is of the 18th century.
Ely Court, Ye Olde Mitre
Apart from the Bishops of Ely, there was another character featured prominently in the history of this area – he was Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor to Elizabeth I. At the time of the Queen’s first acquaintance with Christopher Hatton, he held the position of Master of the Game at the Inner Temple. They met at a theatrical performance staged at Whitehall in which Hatton played a leading part, attracting the Queen’s attention by his graceful dancing. From that time he became a great favourite of her majesty and in 1577 was appointed Vice-Chamberlain, and in 1587 Lord Keeper of the Great Seal – called by Elizabeth, her ‘dancing Chancellor’. They engaged in frequent meetings, and in the House of Commons, he was the Queen’s spokesman, expressing her approvals and dissension’s.
When it occurred to Sir Christopher Hatton that he should reside in a mansion fitting of his position, he set his sights on the magnificent Ely House, London home of the Bishop of Ely. At the Queen’s insistence, Bishop Cox was persuaded to lease his gatehouse and fourteen acres of land to Hatton. To please her the Bishop, without question, agreed to a lease of twenty-one years at a yearly rent of £10 plus ten loads of hay and one red rose.
Once established in his ill-gotten gain, Hatton spent a great deal of money on additions and renovations to the property and land – money borrowed from his royal mistress. Both parties had use of the gardens but after a disagreement concerning the actual boundary of the part included in the lease, a cherry tree was planted to mark the division. It is said that Queen Elizabeth once danced the maypole around the tree during one of her many visits to Hatton. If you look in the corner of the bar-parlour of the Mitre Tavern you will see, what is reputed to be, a preserved chunk of that very tree.
As time passed, the Queen put so much pressure on Hatton to repay the money that he suffered sleepless nights and became ill. She later visited him and quite evidently her dominance caused a worsening of his condition. He died still owing £40,000, a debt that the Queen never forgot. Bishop Cox was obliged to inherit the liability but when he died his successor, Bishop Heton, refused to honour the agreement. He was ordered to comply or he would be dismissed from his position and defrocked. The characteristic letter from Elizabeth laid firmly before him the terms of her demand: ‘Proud Prelate! I understand you are backward in complying with your agreement: but I would have you know that I, who made you what you are, can unmake you; and if you do not forthwith fulfil your engagement, by God I will immediately unfrock you.’ – He presumably paid up.
The Mitre is a charming old pub with an atmosphere reminiscent of a country inn. The walls, covered in oak panelling, are adorned with pictures associated with Ely Court and Place. There are two small rooms and a smaller ante-room called The Closet and, be warned, it gets very busy, particularly at lunchtime and early evening.
One point to ponder on when visiting the Mitre is – How on earth did the large table get there since it is too large to pass through the door? Some say the pub was built around it. But there remains the riddle.
Much of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.